Kiini
Ibura
Salaam

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KIS.list

Vol. 39, The Fisherwoman’s Daughter by Ursula K. LeGuin

Posted on 1 January 2004


Just last month I was wondering if it was time to throw in the towel on the KIS.list. Reader interest remains strong, but after my first month back to a fulltime 9-to-5, I didn’t think I could hack it. Then suddenly space cleared, I wrote the KIS.list and sent it out. I was thinking mothering, working a 9-to-5, and keeping up with my writing might be too much. It turns out it’s not (necessarily). If I’m really zen about not pressuring myself, yet very diligent about taking every opportunity to write that comes my way, I can keep up with my commitments.

When I had my daughter, lots of folks wrote in saying they were looking forward to reading about my experiences as a mother/writer. Though many women struggle with the conundrum of how to find time to parent and write, I don’t have much to add to the conversation right now. It usually takes me a while to muddle through an experience before I start writing about it. I have, however, been given an interesting article on the topic of women writing by a fellow writer. The article is called “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” by novelist (and essayist) Ursula K. LeGuin.

After reading the article I thought I’d type up some excerpts and respond to them on the KIS.list, but by the time I was done, I had highlighted most of the essay. Copyright issues aside, the article is too long for me to present here. I finally decided to copy a few compelling excerpts from the end of the essay. If you find it interesting, please go to the library and find the full article. While her literary and intellectual references are unabashedly white, and often distant from my experience, I found the ideas in “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” intriguing and thought-provoking. Regardless of unintentional exclusions, the ideas are relevant and important. Please enjoy this time spent with LeGuin and have a happy happy new year.

“It seems to me a pity. It seems to me a pity that more than fifty years have passed and the conventions, though utterly different, still exist to protect men from being shocked, still admit only male experience of women’s bodies, passions, and existence. It seems to me a pity that so many women, including myself, have accepted this denial of their own experience and narrowed their perception to fit it, writing as if their sexuality were limited to copulation, as if they knew nothing about pregnancy, birth, nursing, mothering, puberty, menstruation, menopause, except what men are willing to hear, nothing except what men are willing to hear about housework, childwork, lifework, war, peace, living, and dying as experienced in the female body and mind and imagination. “Writing the body,” as Woolf asked and Helene Cixous asks, is only the beginning. We have to rewrite the world.

“White writing, Cixous calls it, writing in milk, in mother’s milk. I like that image, because even among feminists, the woman writer has been more often considered in her sexuality as a lover than in her sexuality as pregnant-bearing-nursing-childcaring. Mother still tends to get disappeared. And in losing the artist-mother we lose where there’s a lot to gain. Alicia Ostriker thinks so. ‘The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist,’ she says ‘have you ever heard anybody say that before? The advantage of motherhood for an artist?’

ALICIA OSTRIKER:

“The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption…. If the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to the main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violence and death to love and birth, and it is a lie. ——-

“We think back through our mothers, if we are women,” declares Woolf, but through whom can those who are themselves mothers… do their thinking? … [W]e all need data, we need information, … the sort provided by poets, novelists, artists, from within. As our knowledge begins to accumulate, we can imagine what it would signify to all women, and men, to live in a culture where childbirth and mothering occupied the kind of position that sex and romantic love have occupied in literature and art for the last five hundred years, or … that warfare has occupied since literature began.”

“Here is a passage from a novel where what Woolf, Cixous, and Ostriker ask for is happening, however casually and unpretentiously. In Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone, Rosamund, a young scholar and freelance writer, has a baby about eight months old, Octavia. They share a flat with a friend, Lydia, who’s writing a novel. Rosamund is working away on a book review:

THE MILLSTONE EXCERPT: I had just written and counted my first hundred words when I remembered Octavia; I could hear her making small happy noises… —- I was rather dismayed when I realized she was in Lydia’s room and that I must have left the door open, for Lydia’s room was always full of nasty objects like aspirins, safety razors and bottles of ink; I rushed along to rescue her and the sight that met my eyes when I opened the door was enough to make anyone quake. She had her back to the door and was sitting in the middle of the floor surrounded by a sea of torn, strewed, chewed paper. I stood there transfixed watching the neat small back of her head and her thin stalk-like neck and flowery curls: suddenly she gave a great screech of delight and ripped another sheet of paper. “Octavia” I said in horror, and she started guiltily, and looked round at me with a charming deprecating smile: her mouth, I could see, was wedged full of wads of Lydia’s new novel. —— I picked her up and fished the bits out and laid them carefully on the bedside table with what was left of the typescript; pages 70 to 123 seemed to have survived. The rest was in varying stages of dissolution: some pages were entire but badly crumpled, some were in large pieces, some in small pieces, and some, as I have said, were chewed up. The damage was not, in fact, as great as it appeared at first sight to be, for babies, though persistent, are not thorough: but at first sight it was frightful…. In a way it was clearly the most awful thing for which I have ever been responsible, but as I watched Octavia crawl around the sitting room looking for more work to do, I almost wanted to laugh. It seemed so absurd, to have this small living extension of myself, so dangerous, so vulnerable, for whose injuries and crimes I alone had to suffer… It really was a terrible thing… and yet in comparison with Octavia being so sweet and so alive it did not seem so terrible….”

“Confronted with the wreckage, Lydia is startled, but not deeply distressed: —- “and that was it, except for the fact that Lydia really did have to rewrite two whole chapters as well as doing a lot of boring sellotaping, and when it came out it got bad reviews anyway. This did succeed in making Lydia angry.”

“I have seen Drabble’s work dismissed with the usual list of patronizing adjectives reserved for women who write as women, not imitation men. Let us not let her be disappeared. Her work is deeper than its bright surface. What is she talking about in this funny passage? Why does the girl-baby eat not her mother’s manuscript but another woman’s manuscript? Couldn’t she at least have eaten a manuscript by a man?—no, no, that’s not the point. The point, or part of it, is that babies eat manuscripts. They really do. The poem not written because the baby cried, the novel put aside because of a pregnancy, and so on. Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades; and it is terrible, but not very terrible. The manuscript that got eaten was terrible; if you know Lydia you know the reviewers were right. And that’s part of the point too—that the supreme value of art depends on other equally supreme values. But that subverts the hierarchy of values; “men would be shocked…”

“In Drabble’s comedy of morals the absence of the Hero-Artist is a strong ethical statement. Nobody lives in a great isolation, nobody sacrifices human claims, nobody even scolds the baby. Nobody is going to put their head, or anybody else’s head, into an oven: not the mother, not the writer, not the daughter—these three and one who, being women, do not separate creation and destruction into _ I create/ You are destroyed_ or vice versa. Who are responsible, take responsibility for both the baby and the book. ”

FOOTNOTE: “My understanding of this issue has been much aided by Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice as well as by Jean Baker Miller’s modestly revolutionary Toward a New Psychology of Women. Gilligan’s thesis, stated very roughly, is that our society brings up males to think and speak in terms of their rights, females in terms of their responsibilities, and that conventional psychologies have implicitly evaluated the “male” image of a hierarchy of rights as “superior” (hierarchically, of course) to the “female” image of a network of mutual responsibilities. Hence a man finds it (relatively) easy to assert his “right” to be free of relationships and dependents, a la Gauguin, while women are not granted and do not grant one another any such right, preferring to live as part of an intense and complex network in which freedom is arrived at, if at all, mutually. Coming at the matter from this angle, one can see why there are no or very few “Great Artists” among women, when the “Great Artist” is defined as inherently superior to and not responsible towards others.”

<>

“That is the killer: the killing grudge, the envy, the jealousy, the spite that so often a man is allowed to hold, trained to hold, against anything a woman does that’s not done in his service, for him, to feed his body, his comfort, his kids. A woman who tries to work against that grudge finds the blessing turned into a curse; she must rebel and go it alone, or fall silent in despair. Any artist must expect to work amid the total, rational indifference of everybody else to their work, for years, perhaps for life: but no artist can work well against daily, personal, vengeful resistance. And that’s exactly what many women artists get from the people they love and live with.”

“[U]ntil the mid-seventies I wrote my fiction about heroic adventures, high-tech futures, men in the halls of power, men—men were the central characters, the women were peripheral, secondary. Why don’t you write about women? my mother asked me. I don’t know how, I said. A stupid answer, but an honest one. I did not know how to write about women—very few of us did—because I thought that what men had written about women was the truth, was the true way to write about women. And I couldn’t.”

<>

“And it is feminism that has empowered me to criticize not only my society and myself but—for a moment now—feminism itself. The books-or-babies myth is not only a misogynist hang-up, it can be a feminist one. Some of the women I respect most, writing for publications that I depend on for my sense of women’s solidarity and hope, continue to declare that it is “virtually impossible for a heterosexual woman to be a feminist,” as if heterosexuality were heterosexism; and that social marginality, such as that of lesbian, childless, Black, or Native American women, “appears to be necessary” to form the feminist. Applying these judgments to myself, and believing that as a woman writing at this point I have to be a feminist to be worth beans, I find myself, once again, excluded…disappeared.

“The rationale of the exclusionists, as I understand it, is that the material privilege and social approbation our society grants the heterosexual wife, and particularly the mother, prevent her solidarity with less privileged women and insulate her from the kind of anger and the kind of ideas that lead to feminist action. There is truth in this; maybe it’s true for a lot of women; I can oppose it only with my experience, which is that feminism has been a life-saving necessity to women trapped in the wife/mother “role.” What do the privilege and approbation accorded the housewife-mother by our society in fact consist of? Being the object of infinite advertising? Being charged by psychologists with total answerability for children’s mental well-being, and by the government with total answerability for children’s welfare, while being regularly equated with apple pie by sentimental warmongers? As a social ‘role,’ motherhood, for any woman I know, simply means that she does everything everybody else does plus bringing up the kids.

“To push mothers back into “private life,” a mythological space invented by the patriarchy, on the theory that their acceptance of the “role” of mother invalidates them for public, political, artistic responsibility, is to play Old Nobodaddy’s game, by his rules, on his side.

“In Writing Beyond the Ending, Du Plessis shows how women novelists write about the woman artist: they make her an ethical force, an activist trying “to change the life in which she also is immersed.” To have and bring up kids is to be about as immersed in life as one can be, but it does not always follow that one drowns. A lot of us can swim.”

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : September 2002 – present : : :

Acceptances:
Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 2

Rejections:
Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 1
Residencies/workshops: 1

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==

I’ve been in quite a few anthologies and very rarely am I mentioned in the reviews, but with this Dark Matter anthology, and Mojo, the last anthology I was in, I am happy to say, I’m finally getting a nod or two. It’s nice to be noticed.

No acceptances or rejections this month

Kiini’s Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002

Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4